Buffalo Grass I Hate My Frickin' ISP Black Maria Soul Brother Mammon Fascist Christ I Saw the Light Black and White Lunatic Fringe Number One Lowest Common Denominator Drive Tiny Demons Mystified > Broke Down & Busted > Mystified S.L.U.T. Walls Came DownI was a crazy-mad Todd Rundgren fan in my late teens and early twenties; from 1978, when I first saw him live, through 1985. No Internet, no digital; records were these big warm personal slabs that dragged you in, that you could listen to intently, chin in hands, hands on knees, you really listened. You didn't just have it on your computer speakers while you worked; you listened. And Todd has always been the kind of artist where it seems like you have to fall under the sway of that mystical, silvery faerie dust he sprinkles about in order to really "get it." Eyes that have seen and all that. Even now, pushing 60 he may have lost that pixie quality. But to really "get" Todd, you have to drink the Kool-Aid.
Hawking One World
One thought that stuck in my head at Monday night's Todd show at BB King's: if I tried to imagine in 1982 what a Todd Rundgren concert would be like 25 years later, this show was very much what I would have envisioned. Tasteful, tight, a generous offering of both catalogue material (but not hits; I didn't foresee Todd turning into a nostalgia act) and recent, powerful material, played with enthusiasm and muscle. The band was top-notch, a world class quartet, nimble and facile. And then there was the guitar. Lots and lots of Todd Rundgren's unmistakable instrumental voice, ringing out on that electric guitar. I haven't seen him play this much guitar in years, and it was great. He isn't the fastest player in the world, he doesn't have the best technique, he's sloppy and sometimes it seems like he's racing breathlessly to get the solo out before the break ends. No matter. He is one of the few guitarists in rock whose voice is instantly recognizable, that jagged electric sloppy eager-puppy-on-acid mad dash through the song. It has touched my heart for years, Todd speaks directly to me with his guitar playing, I feel him. And on this night it felt like he had much to say.
Todd played the guitar called foamy all night, save for switching to the Utopia ax for "Tiny Demons."
"Buffalo Grass" features Todd taking the mid-song solo, and laying down his hot shrill distinct lines on the extended end solo. Levin is especially nimble; indeed on many songs you feel like maybe they're too easy for him. Which brings us to "I Hate My Frickin' ISP," a clever and timely song in 1997 that was novelty then, and is now dated novelty (it would make a nice medley with "Macarena.")
But at the end of the song, Todd mentions an interviewer who asked if he was going to play the hits. "The hits?" He feigned incredulity as he gestured to his band mates: Jesse Gress on guitar, Jerry Marotta on drums, and Tony Freaking Levin on bass—and said, "Look at this musical unit. We're gonna fuckin' play!"
And as he leads these studs into "Black Maria," you can't help but be appreciative.
One thing Todd seems to have done with this line-up is to select songs for the set that work well in the guitar-heavy format; the guitar-guitar-bass-drums instrumentation is unusual for Todd, and some fans have bemoaned the lack of keyboards. Not me though; first off, I love guitars, and especially guitars played loud and well in a rock'n'roll setting. And second, when there's a keyboard in the house, Todd has the annoying habit of wanting to sit down and play it, which is best avoided.
Anyway, "Black Maria" totally stings. Todd steps to the lip of the stage and just wails, you just need to soak it all up. Levin is big and bouncy. Then Jesse plays the chorded intro to ‘Soul Brother," Levin lays down a big, funky riff. A nice read, less funk than on the Liars tour; Jesse plays the solo with smooth, solid, creamy clear tone. On "Mammon," Jesse plays speedy lines to define the melody, Levin is big and scary. However, the song—from Liars, and performed in a keyboard-heavy configuration on that tour—is stripped of some of its other-worldly power by this traditional instrumentation. The song leads directly into its philosophical cousin, the slammin' "Fascist Christ," which has been a live highlight with any band Todd has brought out since the Individualist tour in '95. Levin is wearing sticks on the fingers of his right hand, and he uses these to play the bass like a percussion instrument; Jesse simulates the scratching of the track with chunky chording. Todd plays an expressive, piercing solo way up top of the guitar neck; the whole thing is nicely executed, passing through several distinct movements.
Now from the sublime to the ridiculous; "I Saw the Light" follows. "You've earned an aperitif," Todd decides. The twin guitar solo on the bridge is a blast and elicits applause; overall the take is a little rough, although somehow that isn't a problem.
"Black and White" is yet another guitar song that benefits from this instrumentation. Jesse takes the lead parts during the verse, Todd takes the solo on the break. "Lunatic Fringe" is loud, stupid fun; Jesse tears it up. "Number One Lowest Common Denominator" is clean, economical, and kick-ass, then Todd introduces "Drive" as a "niche in my oeuvre." And indeed it goes oeuvre quite well, an under-appreciated guitar-driven rocker that is just made for this instrumentation. Todd sings the hell out of it—he is in good voice all night, from rock'n'roll shriek to soulful "woo" and pretty much everything in-between—and wails on the solo. Best version of "Drive' I have ever heard, and a highlight of the show.
Todd switched to the Utopia eye logo guitar for a full-band version of "Tiny Demons," a nice moody restrained take with Jesse playing the riff at the core of the song, and Todd tossing off the odd demonic line.
The medley of "Mystified" and "Broke Down and Busted" was introduced as a blues, which it is. It runs shorter than usual, Todd plays some smoking lead. Then the two-song romp that ends the set. We already know from recent Big Star gigs that "S.L.U.T." works well live with the 2 guitars, as a trashy pop song. Todd and band do it exuberant justice. Then on the Call's "The Walls Came Down;" Jesse rocks the house with his clarity and clean tone.
"Hawking" is a piano song, so it provides a test for the band on the first encore. During some of the quieter passages, Todd sings with no accompaniment save for some light accenting chords from Jesse. The song is is, as always, exquisite, and the band puts it to bed with a lovely, graceful ending. Then "One World," four chords of Utopian glee, gets the house up and singing; Jesse takes the solo.
It was a bit disappointing that the band omitted "Temporary Sanity" and "Worldwide Epiphany" from the set; both had been included two nights prior. But that's just minor grousing; overall the show is fresh and appealing. Top notch players, enthusiastic takes on both old songs and new ones. Todd seems to rise to the level of his surroundings, and he was loose (but not TOO loose) and at the top of his game—looked great, sang great, played like a total mofo, led the band with what looked like an easy camaraderie.
I wouldn't kick if Todd wanted to replace "ISP" with, say, "Surf Talks," and I'd love to see this line-up take a shot at something like ‘Seven Rays." But hell, I'd see them any time they came around.